Thomas Lovell Beddoes
‘It is the business of the living to assist the imagination of the dead”
W.B.Yeats, A Vision
In the summer of 1817, the poet-physician Thomas Lovell Beddoes was sent to school in London at the Charterhouse, a former Carthusian monastery situated on the north side of Charterhouse Square, Smithfield. Suitably for the moody death-fixated Beddoes, the school stood on the site of a Black Death plague pit. Smithfield during the reign of George III was known to be a ghoulish and socially defiled area; it seems to have wormed its way into Beddoes’ darkly off-putting imagination, and left fingerprints on his work. His much anthologized poem ‘Dream-Pedlary’, written in 1835 under the spell of Shelley, remains one of the most sublimely tender if chilling lyrics in the English language.
If there were dreams to sell,
What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life’s fresh crown
Only a roseleaf down.
Few have written so exquisitely of life’s uncertainty or the chill of supernatural coincidence. At this doleful best, Beddoes exudes a moony ghostliness (“moony” was his favourite adjective) and sardonic wit. Behind his nauseated vision of our mortality lay the darkness of mid-Georgian central London and the gibber and gloom of Smithfield.
Livestock had been sold at “Smoothfield” since medieval times, but the market had grown monstrously by the time Beddoes went to school there. The Church of England condemned the area with its cat-gut factories, bladder-blowers and rabbit fur dressers as a “metropolitan abomination”. (1) The open drains round the Charterhouse were routinely choked with animal effluvia, while Pissing Alley (now Passing Alley, off St John’s Street) was nearly ankle-deep in animal belly-blood, fat and foam. Not surprisingly the meat market’s proximity to St Bartholomew’s Hospital was reckoned insalubrious by Georgian town planners. William Makepeace Thackeray, who went to the Charterhouse in 1822 two years after Beddoes, parodied his school as ‘The Slaughter House”. (2)
According to the admission registers, the summer term that year of 1817 began on Smithfield’s ‘sheep day’: June 5. (3) The day before, “Mad King” George III had celebrated his eighty-second birthday but the festivities had not reached this part of London. The sheep pens off Chick Lane (buried today beneath the concrete ziggurat of the Barbican Estate) were a shouting, clanging hell of drovers, bleating animals and rattling butcher carts. The sale of livestock in the heart of London must have been an extraordinary sight to the provincial Beddoes; Smithfield made real his adolescent fantasies of Stygian gloom and darkness, Jacobean at heart.
Not quite fourteen, Beddoes had come up from his home in Somerset, where his eccentric chemist father Dr Thomas Beddoes had prescribed nitrous oxide “laughing gas” to the Romantic poets Coleridge and Southey, among others. The boy Thomas was installed in a boarding house called Watkinson’s close to the school itself on Wilderness Row (now Clerkenwell Road). Along this sombre wasteland lurked the prostitutes, card sharps, footpads and other chancers who made Smithfield a shifty backwater. Vagrancy levels had redoubled in London at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, when discharged soldiers roamed the streets in search of food.
Beddoes’s school had been founded in the early 17th century by the London philanthropist Thomas Sutton, a model for Ben Johnson’s foxy Volpone. Originally a charity for poor boys and “decaied gentlemen” (4), in Beddoes’ day the pupils were mostly fee-paying and destined for establishment careers in the church or army. The black-gowned pensioners, a motley of Battle of Trafalgar veterans, cabinet-makers, stable-keepers and East India Company clerks, were vastly outnumbered by the 238 pupils and often unpleasantly ribbed by them. When they could, the pensioners smuggled in pornography from nearby Holywell Street (known as “Booksellers’ Row”) and lifted bottles of porter from the wealthier boys’ trunks.